Low-income and minority students are not being challenged nearly as much as their White peers in high school, according to a new study produced by TNTP, a national education nonprofit. They’ve dubbed this the “opportunity myth”—the false idea that showing up and doing well in school will lead to better opportunity.
Think about that for a minute. If you’re a parent, you probably tell your kids that if they work hard, do their homework and get good grades, they’ll go to college, right? If you’re a fellow educator, you’ve probably said something similar to your students. In America, we accept that there are, and should be, opportunities for those who go to school and work hard.
Yet, for many students, this is just not true.
After following nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems, TNTP’s researchers concluded that this “opportunity myth” does exist, and is the result of several things happening in schools.
First, most students went through their day without grade-appropriate assignments. Students wasted more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that were simply too easy for them. Totaled up, this amounts to six months of wasted class time in each core subject!
Though students met the requirements of their classroom assignments 71 percent of the time (and earned A’s and B’s), they only demonstrated mastery on grade-level standards 17 percent of the time.
Clearly, classroom assignments must be more rigorous to inspire the deep engagement required for learning and memory retention.
Additionally, some teachers neither held their students to high expectations nor provided strong instruction. Less than half of the teachers reported that they thought their students could meet or exceed grade-level standards.
The features are even more lacking in schools serving marginalized students. Classrooms that serve predominantly high-income students spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly low-income students.
Moreover, classrooms filled with mostly students of color received grade-level assignments much more infrequently than classrooms filled with mostly White students.
If this report is true, then educators are allowing students to live in a fantasy world in which they are succeeding, but not on anything that challenges them. If school systems continue to let students down in this way, we are limiting the opportunities for our next generation to graduate from college in four years.
National data makes the “opportunity myth” clear as well. Even though we see higher rates of college enrollment, 66 percent of Black college students and 53 percent of Latinx college students take at least one remedial course for what they should have learned in high school.
What It Means for Me as a Teacher
As a teacher, this report made me reflect on my own practice. Am I doing enough to make sure my students are getting assignments that are right for their grade level? Am I letting them grapple with the content and do the thinking in my lessons? Do I hold any bias against their ability to meet and exceed their grade-level standards?
Recently, I was reminded of the need to challenge students and hold them to high expectations in my Chicago classroom.
My 10th-grade English students rose to meet, and exceed, my expectations for a challenging literature unit on Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” To be honest, I was apprehensive about teaching this book due to its mature sexual content and difficult vocabulary. Perhaps, I even temporarily fell into the category of teachers who had low expectations for their students, as TNTP mentioned.
All of my hesitations vanished as I began to watch students discuss these tough topics, and trust each other to do so respectfully.
Discussions unfolded about the use of the n-word in literature, our school hallways and on the streets of Chicago in a classroom comprised of students from five different racial backgrounds. We talked about the definition of beauty and how it varies based on culture. We discussed the importance of racial representation in our media, the books we read in school and our pop culture. We discussed the book’s portrayal of a child raped by her father and the growing movement in our society to end sexual assault of all kinds.
All of these topics challenged students to connect literature to life. Since many were connected to current events, students also had the benefit of tackling difficult informational texts and primary sources such as “The Doll Test.”
These tough topics called upon their maturity. In this unit I saw any typical goofing around or off-task behavior nearly cease. I think students somehow felt that when we are talking about such sensitive issues, they needed to approach them with focus and adult-like behavior.
I truly believe that when we ask students to rise to meet challenging texts and topics head-on, they can. We as educators must show our students that we trust them to do so—we take one step toward busting “the opportunity myth” when we do.